Wednesday afternoon at Bodymoor Heath and the atmosphere around Aston Villa’s training was noticeably different.
Philippe Coutinho’s loan to the club has been greeted with interest and curiosity from outside observers but, inside the camp, the only feeling is excitement.
As the Brazilian got down to business, under the keen eye of Villa’s coaching staff, enthusiasm started to quickly build.
Philippe Coutinho’s (pictured) loan to Aston Villa has been greeted with interest and curiosity
Many of his new team-mates had finished second day recovery sessions, following Monday’s FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford, but they were in no hurry to leave. They preferred to stay and watch as Coutinho started to go effortlessly through the gears.
The tricks and flicks may have been easy on the eye but the thing that resonated most with Steven Gerrard’s squad was the fact Coutinho was smiling throughout. After four years seemingly surrounded by clouds, was this the moment a light had returned?
It is easy to forget the way Coutinho was once discussed and the joy he brought. When he first joined Liverpool nine years ago from Inter Milan, he played with such creativity under Brendan Rodgers that Daniel Sturridge — a chief beneficiary of his ingenuity — dubbed him ‘David Blaine’.
Steven Gerrard’s (centre) side were beaten by Manchester United in the FA Cup on Monday
The Kop loved him so much that a banner hailing him O Magico was created. Jurgen Klopp was in raptures to inherit a player of his ability and there is a story, after a game at Crystal Palace in October 2016 which Liverpool won 4-2, when the German could not contain his enthusiasm.
‘Coutinho!’ he kept saying, as he greeted the squad at their old Melwood complex. ‘Coutinho… wow!’ And he was a ‘wow’ footballer.
Gerrard, during his playing days, was fiendishly difficult to win over when appraising others but when you got him in conversation about Coutinho, the tone of his voice always changed.
When he told you the boy from Rio was special, you knew he meant it.
The current Villa boss hailed Coutinho as special during their days together at Liverpool
The sheen around him was removed following his transfer to Barcelona in January 2018. Liverpool squeezed every last penny out of the Catalans, selling him for £146million. The price reflected his standing in the game back then but it also became a curse.
There was initial promise. He and his wife, Aine, settled into life in the beach town of Castelldefels, where their neighbours included Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.
He fitted in on the pitch, too, never more so than when Barca won the Copa del Rey, scoring as Seville were thrashed 5-0 in the final.
That game, however, is best remembered for a glorious Andres Iniesta goal and Iniesta was, in many ways, Coutinho’s biggest problem. He had been drafted in to be Iniesta’s long-term replacement but those demands weighed heavily on his shoulders through 2018-19.
The demands to be Andres Iniesta’s (pictured) replacement at the Nou Camp weighed heavily on the Brazilian
He spurned the perfect chance to win over fans when allowing his pride to get the better of him in a Champions League quarter-final second leg against Manchester United at the Nou Camp, after scoring the third goal — and a beautiful one, too — in a 3-0 win.
Yet there was no joy. He stood alone in the centre of the pitch, closed his eyes and stuck his fingers in his ears. This was a protest against the criticism he had received but he ensured it was that image, and not the goal, that would be shown repeatedly on Spain’s football debate shows.
The midfielder spurned the chance to win Barcelona fans over
‘Great goal, ugly celebration’ screamed a headline in influential local paper Diario Sport and they cited lip readers claiming he said: ‘Vai tomar no cu’ as he put his fingers in his ears — a Portuguese phrase tantamount to ‘f*** you’.
From here, it seemed he was fighting a losing battle.
An abiding memory comes from the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in May 2019, when Barcelona had beaten Liverpool 3-0. Coutinho was anonymous and, at the end, spent more time with his old team-mates than his current ones.
It said everything that Barcelona were happy to loan out the third most expensive signing in history that summer as he went to Bayern Munich. The perception is that he struggled but those who worked with him see it differently.
Saddled with that price tag, some members of the German media anticipated Coutinho would turn up and score a hat-trick every game. The reality was different. He walked into a dressing room with huge characters and big players and was happy to blend in.
They remember him in Bavaria as being ‘nice but shy’ and ‘no trouble at all’. He scored 11 times — two of which came in the 8-2 skewering of Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final — in 38 appearances.
Coutinho scored 11 times and won the Champions League with Bayern Munich on loan
He won four trophies, including the biggest one in the business, Bayern beating Paris Saint- Germain 1-0 in Lisbon. Bayern may have sent him back to Spain but the impression he made on those at the club’s Sabener Strasse headquarters was positive.
There were no queries about his attitude nor his talent — the only reason he did not stay was that Barcelona wanted to recoup £100m and the price wasn’t feasible.
Back at Barcelona and with Messi gone, the feeling this season was that Coutinho’s time might finally come. Once again, however, there was only lingering frustration and little happiness, the lowest point coming away at Celta Vigo last November.
When young forward Ansu Fati had to come off just before half-time, caretaker coach Sergi Barjuan asked him to warm-up.
Coutinho has spent a lot of this season on the bench for Barca, making just five LaLiga starts
There was a perceived lack of urgency as he climbed off the bench and no change was made. They waited until the break and, instead, put on 18-year-old full back Alejandro Balde.
There were reports one senior Barcelona player had remonstrated with him afterwards over his attitude — something Coutinho vehemently denied — but the writing was on the wall.
With new coach Xavi taking the team in a different direction, Coutinho had to leave.
New coach Xavi is taking Barcelona in a different direction meaning Coutinho had to leave
For all that it was miserable for him in Barcelona, the reaction to Coutinho turning up in Birmingham shows he still carries the potential to be box office. All eyes will be on him when Villa host Manchester United this evening. There will be no more spectacular deal in the remainder of the window, primarily because of the characters involved.
It really must not be underestimated the power and influence Gerrard has had on this deal. Coutinho had been in awe of him when he turned up at Liverpool, as he vividly remembered one night in Istanbul in 2005, when he watched him lift the Champions League trophy.
Coutinho, who watched Villa’s game on Monday on his iPad in Paris after finishing his visa application, wanted to impress Gerrard every day back then and the same will be true now.
The big question is whether the magic is still there. Those who saw him on Wednesday are adamant the answer is yes.